Oct. 2, 2020 — Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer in her poem “Holding What Must Be Held” writes: “Down by the river we sit and talk. / When I think I can’t ache any more, / the world serves more heartache.” I can think of few better words to describe my sense of broken-heartedness in this era of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matters marches for racial and social justice, and the climate crisis. I know in my life there are daily talks about the trials we face individually and collectively. Network TV and radio brings to light all that is lost when another person dies from the coronavirus. I have my stories of pain and loss. I hear similar stories from colleagues and friends. We “sit and talk”. We willingly carry the burden of each other’s sorrow, providing a brief moment of respite. That is what it means to be in community. When we rise from the riverbank, we find that all around us the world is hurting. Its people are suffering. The rate of animal and plant extinction is rising. Social institutions are struggling to hold the fraying fabric of society in one piece. Schools and teachers who are historically a place of social cohesion are saddled with the difficult task of serving the learning and social emotional interests of students while also facing a deadly viral pandemic. The call to care for students seems to run headlong into the requirements of social distancing in a virtual classroom. In Zoom, teacher and students are reduced to small boxes, walled off and separate. Most teachers I know are tired, frustrated and just want to share a classroom space with their students. The language of burnout no longer seems adequate to describe this moment. And still the “world serves more heartache”. We just want to be together; to see each other.

It seems that the question is not when will the heartache end, but rather are there ways to both hold our collective pain while also turning toward new opportunities? The pain is real. The loss of so many lives is real. The longing of teachers to teach in the living-presence of their students is real. To say that change is in the air seems like an understatement. Sacred cows that once were nearly unassailable are now falling to the wayside. Take for example online education. Not that long ago the resistance to teaching in virtual classrooms was high. And now it is more common than face to face learning. Think of all the opportunities that are now open that were once closed to teachers and students. There are yet to be explored avenues for advancing equity, justice and diversity in schools. For me there is a newness and freshness that only a pandemic, a situation no one wanted and that no one can escape, brings to education. It feels like in the midst of broken-heartedness is a kernel of abundance waiting to grow and flourish. We are all in this together, some a little better off and some a lot worse off, but still we are all bound together in ways we have not felt before.

What I fear and seek to resist is the temptation to move quickly from this moment of collective disruption, a pandemic of uncertainty, to a return to the social and educational status quo. I’ve developed a strong response to two words that I hear in the halls of education lately: pivot and normal. Change it seems can run two ways. One path brings us back to the way things once were. A pivot toward the normalness of power and privilege, the maintenance of the status quo. Given the level of uncertainty and the sense of loss experienced by so many, this seems like a reasonable turn to make. If things just get back to normal, if we can just open schools, then we can get back to the job of teaching and learning. But this path also seems dangerous in that in the comfort of normal comes the familiar experiences of injustice, inequity and disempowerment for many. The other path of change leads away from tradition. It favors innovation, imagination, ambiguity and the unknown possibilities of the teacher’s heart. The environmental and social pandemics of our time have created a rift in normal, an opening to newer ways of being together in educational spaces. Heartache is sure to find us no matter which direction we choose. But I choose the kind that leads toward community and empowerment, not individualism and loss of agency. I would like to offer five questions that I think can help educators in making decisions that advance the mission of equity and excellence while resisting the pull back to normal: 1. Who is empowered and flourishing?, 2. Who’s voice is honored?, 3. How is everyone humanized?, 4. Are we listening?, and 5. What are we will to give up?

June 17, 2020 — “Normal” is a word I hear often these days. It carries with it the allure, of well, normal. I sense that it is often used with good intention. A longing for stability and certainty about the world and our place in it. And as a leader and teacher I think there is a good reason to express a certain degree of skepticism about its meaning. Especially in the current context of a global pandemic, world-wide economic decline, and the calls for justice by Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. A return to “normal” feels to me inadequate for the deep work that I need to do and that the institutions that I’m part of and love also need to do. In my head I hear the lyrics to a Bruce Cockburn song: “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” And by worse he means the divide between the haves and have nots, the rich and poor, and the empowered and disempowered. His song from 1983 is a prophetic warning to question normal as an operating principle, then and now.

This moment, now, compels me as educator and leader to address the realities of structural racism in every institution, especially schools, that support and perpetuate the pandemic of whiteness as normal. I don’t know how you are doing with this moment. Perhaps you carry sadness with you or fear. Rapid change and loss may well have brought weariness, bone weariness and a sense that you don’t know how to keep moving forward. Or even what forward looks like right now. You may be welcoming the change that is sweeping the world and the possibility found in chaos. You might sense that disruption is clearing away old habits and offering new ways to grow and heal. Regardless, I invite you to be fully present to your emotions. To feel them in your body. To know that they are real and contain the energy of transformation for self, others, and the field of education.

The questions I’m holding today are many and varied. Where should I look for wisdom, sense making, or something tangible to anchor to in hard times? What can I do when it feels like everything around me is in turmoil? Faculty, staff, students, and administrators are preparing for the fall quarter. I wonder how anyone can really plan amidst all the changes we are going through individually and collectively? I wonder how can we pick up the shattered pieces of social structures that empower some and disempower others—without recreating systems of oppression? I feel simultaneously charged and disoriented. I don’t really know what the best course of action is. I find myself searching for the generative space between deconstruction of power and privilege; and the construction of newness grounded in liberation and freedom for all. What can I do, is a daily question for me?

Two sources of wisdom have helped center me lately while keeping me open to personal and social change. The first dates to 1948 and the eve of the atomic revolution and potential world destruction. Four elders were appointed by the Hopi Nation to share ancient wisdom and prophecy. One story tells that now, a world in crisis, is like a mighty river. The eleventh-hour is here and so is the time to act.

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.  And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

I hear in the prophecy of the Hopi elder that fear plays an important role in the way I and others choose to respond to this moment. The pain and loss associated with climate change, COVID-19, economic collapse, and the death of so many Black, Brown, and indigenous people feels like a mighty river. It is sweeping normal away and flushing out the no longer useful ways of being.

What can I do? I can let go and join the river as it flows to its destination, not my hoped for normal, but the river’s natural end point. What is of most use to me is the truth that once I let go and stop hanging on to my white-male-heterosexual privilege, for instance, I will find myself in the company of many others. In community we can celebrate and rejoice together as power is reconfigured in service of everyone, and every learner. Now is the time for me to give up privilege in order to give it back to all.

The second wisdom story comes from a June 5, 2020 National Public Radio StoryCorp conversation between a Black father (Albert Sykes) and his 9 year old son (Aiden).

Aiden: So, Dad, what are your dreams for me?

Mr. Sykes: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so for the rest of your life, I want to see you live with your hands unfolding.

I like thinking in metaphors. They help me get beyond my rational mind to the living heart of truth. Albert Sykes offers me an understanding of change that combines the destructive and constructive image of a fist. What can I do? Now is a time, as many social justice educators argue, to raise a fist and break apart the power structures that oppress and kill (emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically) so many. At some point, the closed fist will open, in its own time, to reveal gifts. New ways of knowing and being that the wounded world and broken schools need for healing.

Neither wisdom story offers a systematic and structured plan for change. They can’t be condensed into an email of next steps and phases or written as a five-year strategic plan. I find the wisdom that speaks to my heart takes its own time to settle in and create the conditions for growth and change. I need to sit with this wisdom and let it work me, rather than me applying my expectations and timeline to it.

Now is the eleventh-hour, a time to act. For some that means jumping into the river and swimming with fellow radical educators and protestors. For some that means sewing masks, painting slogans of empowerment, or pursuing other ways to disrupt and deconstruct the system. For others it means writing scholarly articles or leading professional development grounded in social justice practices and principles.

What can I do? I can look for companions with closed fists waiting for them to open and reveal gifts of insight, change, and the way forward to a more humane, compassionate, and just world. What can you do? What is in your fist today? What gifts do you carry? What is your unique wisdom to share with all of us?


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